By Jim White, Senior Fellow for Land and Biodiversity Management
I don’t always go out looking for wildflowers, but when I do I particularly like to look for those that bloom in early spring, often called the “spring ephemerals”. More knowledgeable botanizers may consider all wildflowers interesting and fun to search for; however, my favorites are those that bloom in early spring. They are called “ephemerals” because of their relatively short blooming periods; these plants are the first to push up through the cold forest floor and burst into bloom in March, April and early May. Well before the leaves emerge on the trees above, the woodlands in our area become dotted with these usually small and unassuming plants. Searching for spring ephemerals is half the fun, and each spring I find myself out in the otherwise bare woods looking for, admiring, and photographing these ephemeral beauties. So join me now for a virtual walk in the woods on a quest to find these forest jewels.
The first bloom that we will look for is that of the Round-lobed Hepatica. In late March this unassuming plant throws up small but beautiful lavender, six to ten-“petal” (actually sepals) flowers through the blanket of last year’s tree leaves. Hepaticas are not especially common, and like many of the ephemerals they can be easily overlooked. However, if we search carefully in rich mature woodlands, we might get lucky and find one or two plants. If we do, we may well find ourselves lying on our bellies in order to get the perfect photo of these small but gorgeous flowers.
As the ground temperature begins to rise in early to mid-April many other wildflowers begin to bloom. Now we can search for patches of Bloodroot that often dot the woods with their delicate 2-3” long, white petals; along with the pinkish flowers of the well-named Spring Beauty; and Trout Lily with its showy, yellow, almost orchid-like flower. Dutchman’s Breeches, which gets its name from the fact that the flowers resemble the pants of a Dutchman, are also beginning to bloom (personally I have never seen the pants of a Dutchman, but I will take others’ word for it). On our walk we will also look for the delicate Cut-leaved Toothwort. If we are real lucky we might locate a patch of the uncommon Goldenseal or the delicate red flowers of Wild Columbine.
Exploring onward, I have left the showiest of spring ephemerals for last: Virginia Bluebells. We’ll have to walk in rich floodplains like those of the Brandywine Valley to see the best patches of these relatively large spring ephemerals with their striking, blue, bell-like flowers. We’ll take our time here admiring and filling our memory cards with photos of this glorious plant.
Now it’s time to take a break in our quest to see more kinds of spring wildflowers. Join me again in a couple of weeks for Part 2 of our search, at which time we’ll aim to catch the second wave of the spring ephemerals.